Freedmen school & monastery

Pride Month: One Historical perspective

For nearly four years, I have been researching the Benedictine monastery and Freedmen school on Skidaway Island, first through archaeological field work in 2016 and 2017. Since I have continued my historical research with the goal to write a book. This monastery was one of several started in 1870s Savannah, with the aim to convert the African American families living and farming on Skidaway Island, teach boys in their boarding school, and train adult African American lay brothers to further spread Catholicism.

One of the richest data sources are the letters between the monks. Most, but not all, of the letters are the Skidaway mission founder Father Oswald Moosmüller reporting to his superior Abbot Boniface Wimmer at St. Vincent Abbey in Pennsylvania. In one letter, I was quite shocked to find a reference to gay sex. Really I was shocked to find any reference to sex, because these were monks. In March of 1878, Father Oswald wrote to Abbot Innocent Wolf of Kansas (honestly, the best name ever) and explained why he dismissed an unnamed African American lay brother,

“Yesterday I found myself obliged to raise a row and expel that fellow, after having heard two witnesses in his presence, which proved that he is a Sodomist etc. etc. I claimed that right for myself 1, because there was periculum in mora* 2, if I have the right to receive brothers & let them make their novitiate and take their vows so I have also the right to dismiss them; 3, moreover according to the laws of Georgia there is capital punishment on such crimes; with a nigro [sic] they do not make much ceremony in that matter”.

source: Benedictine Military SChool Archives, Savannah, Georgia

It is unclear whether Father Oswald means that homosexuality is rarely tried and punished when African Americans are involved, or whether an African American accused of homosexuality would simply be lynched without a trial. Either way, Father Oswald expelled the man without further mention. While this man lost his home and possibly his vocation, according to the contemporary laws, he could have lost much more. The punishment for having an LGBT+ relationship was capital punishment. You could be put to death. Pause for a moment and consider those implications.

This document leaves so much unexplained. Nothing is mentioned of his partner. Presumably, it was not someone in the monastery, as no one else was expelled. So his partner was likely another person on Skidaway Island. Further, since we do not have the man’s name, it is nearly impossible to trace his life further. Did he leave the island? Did he leave the Catholic faith? How did he make a living? Did he ever get married or have children?

*Latin for “danger in delay”

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